CD Review of the Day: Carlene Carter’s “Carter Girl”

March 3, 2014

CARLENE CARTER

Carter Girl (Rounder Records)

By Brian Arsenault

The connection between blues and rock has long been established and celebrated, bemoaned and argued about. Even the connection between blues and jazz has been recognized.

Seemingly less considered has been the close relationship of country and blues.

There are differences to overcome: white – black, rural – urban, poor poorer - poorest. Yet the sterling, true roots country represented by the Carters over three generations aligns with the blues in so many ways:

- Sad songs about sad situations to make you happy or at least help you cope.

Songs stripped down to the basics in melody and tempo.

- Guitar based instrumentation, originally acoustic and later electric.

- The plain language of plain spoken people.

Roots that run to gospel and other church music.

That connection struck me as Carlene Carter’s first solo album in a decade, Carter Girl, kicked off with a jumpy, bluesy version of “Little Black Train,” first recorded by the Carter Family in 1935. 1935!

The little black train of judgment or death or both may arrive tonight but that’s no reason not to dance to Carlene and the nifty little band assembled for the album. A. P. Carter wrote the tune and his compositions are all over the album, which will be released the first week in April.

Carlene Carter

This daughter of June Carter Cash and granddaughter of Mother Maybelle Carter has a voice that’s come down the generations. She sings and fits right in (artistically) with some of the departed on the family’s classic “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow.” Step dad Johnny Cash can be heard there as well.

The heartstrings get pulled on “Troublesome Waters,” where Willie Nelson sings the opening bars of this wondrous duet with Carlene. Sounds like Willie’s acoustic guitar work in there too. The dark turbulent water the symbol for “life’s stormy seas.”

The strings get pulled again on the following song “Lonesome Valley 2003,” Carlene’s reworking of A.P.’s song of loss, in Carlene’s case her mom and sister and Cash.

Carlene Carter and Kris Kristofferson

Carlene Carter and Kris Kristofferson

The mood is lightened on Carlene’s duet with Kris Kristofferson, “Blackjack David,” where a pretty little girl who’ll “be 16 next Sunday” hooks up with a rascal. Might be illegal today but just like in Chuck Berry’s “Teenage Wedding” darned if they don’t last together. “Goes to show you never can tell.”

Carlene herself will be 59 next September but that just means she controls her considerable talent with dignity and stylish tribute, not imitation. Plus there’s a youthfulness to this album because good songs, and good singers, stay fresh.

Oh yeah, I mentioned the fine band but didn’t know till I read some publicity after listening that one of my favorite drummers of all time, Jim Keltner, is pounding just great on songs like “Blackie’s Gunman.”

Give Carlene the roses while she lives — a paraphrase of my favorite song on the album. “Give me the Roses while I live . . . “Don’t wait to death to speak kind words.” I’ve tried to provide a few. As the song says, they’re “useless after the soul has gone.”

I know, I know. I’m supposed to mention Americana music, roots music. All the rage in some circles right now. Suffice to say that this album is the real thing amidst so much that is good and so much more that is just slowed down pop songs played with acoustic instruments.

This would be a fine album even if Travolta was still dressing funny (not funny dresses) and cavorting to Bee Gees’ disco tunes.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.


Christmas CDs: Tim Warfield, New York Voices, Jonathan Butler, Karrin Allyson

December 4, 2013

Of Spirits Bright

 By Brian Arsenault

The feast of Holiday music this year is as abundant as Tiny Tim’s Christmas table. After Scrooge woke up and saw the light, of course. Here are four shining stars to guide us home to Christmas.

Tim Warfield

Tim Warfield’s Jazzy Christmas (Undaunted Music)

Tim and a whole bunch of great musicians’ (most to be named as we go along) undaunted music

To begin with, this is a terrific jazz album as well as Christmas music to delight the heart. You could play it with relish in June — it was actually recorded during summer months — but you might find yourself suddenly wanting to trim a tree.

From the start, on “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” you first dig the playing: Warfield’s sax alternating with Terrell Stafford’s trumpet. Stefon Harris comes in on vibraphone, Neil Podgurski’s piano rounds things. This is a fine band playing fine jazz with Christmas “feeling.”

Warfield says “You have to believe in feeling, because that is the top of the hill in all of the arts.” Yeah. And on “Oh Christmas Tree” Podgurski’s piano intro wraps around you like a warm fire in the living room, Christmas tree in the corner. A fine vocal by Jamie Davis. Warfield’s tenor sax.

Caroling Caroling” is just joyous, all the instruments contributing. And drummer Clarence Penn sets a rollicking pace on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Tim has reminded us that “Relating to the African diaspora,… Music begins with the drum…”

So naturally there’s a fine rendition of “Little Drummer Boy.” And “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” well, it’s not restful, it’s exuberant. Heck, the whole album is.

 New York Voices

 Let It Snow (12th Street Records)

If you have warm Christmas memories of childhood, this album may transport you there.

Bach’s Sleeper’s Wake (Ah, Bach) is the universal mother figure arousing a young sleepyhead on the big morning. It might also be a summons for sinners but that’s for another time.

Silent Night” is God’s a capella chorus.

We wish you a Merry Christmas” is all your friends who like that sort of thing gathered around a piano, caroling. Of course, your friends may not sing or play the piano as well, but in fond memories or with lots of good cheer they can.

The four New York Voices are those of Kim Nazarian, Darmon Meader, Lauren Kinhan and Peter Eldridge. Individually pleasing, over a quarter century they have come to blend them in a manner that seems to be of one mind. And soul.

On Christmas music, the effect is magical whether a capella or big band, whether jolly jumping or quietly meditative.

The “Silent Night” done here is angels on high. Four voices fill the room in a nearly orchestral manner. Send your troubles miles away.

Jonathan Butler

Merry Christmas to You (Artistry Music)

Soul seems especially appropriate for Christmas, which at its core is about soul in the big sense.

Jonathan Butler is about soul in the musical sense and comes right out of the gate with Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” somehow with more of a Stevie Wonder quality than Hathaway. Good enough either way.

Damn, or rather, Bless, this guy can sing. He also can compose and his “Merry Christmas to You” — a Christmas love song and there should be more of those — shows off both talents. He also plays guitar and most of the other instruments on the album.

His rich full voice on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” may draw a tear. Dreams matter too.

Nobody ever sang “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” like Judy Garland. She was always close to the pain implicit in the song and clung to its hopefulness in her battered but brave life. Yet Butler comes close.

He knew pain too growing up under apartheid in South Africa but he never lost hope either. Maybe you have to have some of the faith most of us have lost or decided is irrelevant in the modern world.

His is still a personal God. Of all the albums here, only his includes “The First Noel,” which is perhaps the most faith-based of the traditional carols. To hear him sing it is to go to the Church you may wish you had.

Oh, and for the big population control advocates among you, consider that Jonathan is the youngest of 17 children. Seems maybe miracles can come at any time.

Karrin Allyson

 Yuletide Hideaway (Kasrecords)

I think I may have heard a new addition to the Christmas songbook.

Karrin Allyson’s album opens with the title song which isn’t really about a physical place. It’s rather about where we hope to go: where reindeers blow a trumpet and there are skaters on a mirror pond. It’s a song that hopes for Christmas for grownups. And I think it will be heard by her and others for many future Christmases.

The second song, “Winter Oasis,” has that same quality. The search for a “place” called Christmas that the child in us embraces. Where we hope to stay for just a little while.

This whole album seems an effort at seeking that world. Ms Allyson has such a rich, expressive voice that we are happy to journey with her.

Arriving at “Winter Wonderland” we find it can be done in a restrained and soft manner when it is often done so brassy. Yet “Let It Snow” has all the bounce normally associated with the song.

Inventive and traditional. Nicely blended.

Her version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” has the gentle touch she brings to so much in the album. The band is especially strong here: Rod Fleeman’s guitar, Todd Strait on drums and sleigh bells, Gerald Spaits on acoustic bass.

There’s also a nice little tribute to Vince Guaraldi on “Christmas Time Is Here,” inseparable from the Holiday for all who have grown up, or are growing up, with Charlie Brown and the gang.

Warm as Nana’s quilt.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.


CD Review: TriBeCaStan’s “New Songs From the Old Country”

November 12, 2013

TriBeCaStan

New Songs From the Old Country (Evergreene Music)

By Brian Arsenault

I’m a bit late getting to this gem and it is one. A rare gem that perhaps could only come out of New York — especially the “TriangleBelowCanalSt.” — where there is as much diversity as just about anywhere in the world.

Diversity of instruments — some I am not sure how to pronounce or spell. What’s a charango? Diversity of influences — from the frozen tundra of Mother Russia to the deserts of North Africa. All channeled through an American jazz sensibility with traces of bluegrass, blues and rock.

TriBeCaStan

I know. I’m not being clear enough. But it’s hard since there’s a good chance you’ve never heard anything like it before if you aren’t familiar with the band.

Eastern and Western rhythms intermingle. Stringed instruments from around the world are combined. Is that a flute? No a penny whistle. Maybe both.

It’s music that seems both terribly foreign and yet very comfortable. You might like playing it as a Holiday album, whatever holiday you celebrate at this time of year. People might smile and start to dance a step or two. On the other hand, they may go ‘What the hell is this?’

A caravan moves across a desert before we decided to hate each other to death. Maybe after we stop.

You move from a room where an Irish folk tune is being played to a room full of jazz, then back again to the penny whistle and so on and so forth till you might feel a bit dizzy. Happy though.

Then you’ll be at the Circus’ Christmas party in Tinker Tailor singing something like the old Soviet national anthem.

You can cook to this music. I did. Breakfast. (Pancakes) But a bunch of Russians from an old movie may suddenly dance in your kitchen.

This is music that seeks the world but may not make it out of New York. It’s too unique. I don’t think we do unique any more.

Oh, it’s not flawless. The album drags a bit in the middle as if it’s running out of ideas and energy, starting to repeat, but then there’s a new surge of energy.

Adrian’s Leap” leaps to a bit of rock.

The Blue Sky of Your Eyes” brings bluegrass into play and shows that Delta harmonica has the same musical roots, a connection not often made.

Kecapi Rain” is maybe the most beautiful piece on the album. Soft rain falls. It’s warm.

Strings and pipes. A flute? I don’t know. I get confused and stop trying to pick out everything.

Let the soft warm rain fall.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.


Record Rack: Cheryl Bentyne & Mark Winkler, Ry Cooder

September 19, 2013

 Of What Amazes and What Might Have Been

By Brian Arsenault

Cheryl Bentyne & Mark Winkler

West Coast Cool (Summit Records)

The only thing that disappoints me about West Coast Cool is that I’ll never hear it for the first time again. Jump in any place. One of them will be singing great. Or both of them. In counterpoint and in harmony. No blemishes.

Drop in on “Something Cool” for example where Cheryl Bentyne may bring chills. No Broadway climax dramatic song packs the emotional punch felt here.

Or start at the beginning– “Take5/Drinks on the Patio”– where she teams with Mark Winkler on alternating verses to create one song of two, one image of two, one aesthetic for a pair. This happens elsewhere.

A personal favorite, “Talk of the Town/Girl Talk,” is where I realized how truly great they are together. Cheryl’s hurt purity and crystallized phrasing on “Talk of the Town”; Winkler the smoothest sound this side of “the Velvet Fog” with a tone all his own on “Girl Talk.“ Then they get together. Just so very cool.

This tribute to West Coast Cool Jazz raises the genre while celebrating it. It is also really something more; an extension and a rounding of the American songbook. These songs should be sung on every coast and from sea to shining sea.

The album is also proof that the notion that jazz is so cerebral and sophisticated that it’s not for everybody is foolish and trite. Jazz came from the same place as blues and r&b and at its core it is people’s music.

Out for the night music. This is music to be savored. With a drink. Over dinner. On the dance floor. Just listening.

The “cool” of the West Coast sound is apparent but much more important is the depth of feeling, the constant touch of humanity, and the simple deep pleasure of music done at the highest level.

There are many fine female jazz singers on the scene right now but, hey, there has to be a Queen — Queen Cheryl. There are not so many top notch male jazz singers right now but there is an even rarer bird called Winkler. He’s just so good.

At the end of the album there’s a bonus track to give you a taste of the live show. But everything before that is also filled with snap, immediacy, spontaneity. Just a great album.

Ry Cooder and Corridos Famosos

Live At The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco  (Nonesuch Records)

The only thing that disappoints me about Ry Cooder Live At The Great American Music Hall is that it doesn’t turn out to be as great an album as its beginning suggests it will be.

I mean I’m just dying through the first couple songs — “Crazy ‘Bout an Automobile” and “Why Don’t You Try Me” — thinking great brass band, great backing chorus. Like nothing else since Cocker and Leon hated each other enough to create the great Mad Dogs and Englishmen.

Cooder showing what a fine guitarist he is, especially if you like it melodic/musical. And who doesn’t?

Then comes “Boomer’s Story” and a little “Band” sneaks in and I go “That’s ok, nice change of pace.” From there, though, there’s this long slow exhale like the air seeping from a balloon.

Oh, there’s some really fine stuff ahead. If Flaco Jimenez’ accordion on Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi” doesn’t make you smile you should have someone check your pulse.

The soul and soulfulness of Terry Andrews and Arnold McCuller on “The Dark Side of the Street” bring down the house. It’s Ry-time on guitar solo and in harmony with the accordion.

By now, though, I’m not sure the concert and hence the album have a focus. We’re jumping all over the place from the streets of Mexico to the boxcars of Woody Guthrie without a unifying voice. It isn’t a merging of disparate forms into something new; it’s an amalgamation or, more to the point, a scattering.

Is this the new Americana? I mean ”Wooly Bully”? It never was much except a dirty little ditty at the sex humor level of 12 year old boys. Why bother? And how did the murderous Jesse James ever get to heaven. He rode with Quantrill for heaven’s sake.

Goodnight Irene” where we all know the chorus but not a lot of the lyrics — morphine is in there, apparently — is a sweet sendoff at the end of the album. Again that Ry guitar — he and Willie have a similar touch — is as fine as it gets.

Yet the goodnight is bittersweet for me because the album never gets back to the drive, the energy, the collective delight of so many musicians playing so well together, of those first two songs. But we’ll always have those two tracks.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.


Record Rack: The Rolling Stones and the Animals (Reissues)

April 14, 2013

Not Fade Away After Half a Century

 By Brian Arsenault

Vinylphiles rejoice.  If you still have a vinyl player that turns at 45 revolutions per minute, ABKCO has a very special treat indeed for you in honor of Record Store Day this Saturday (April 20).  Remarkably, there are 700 independent record stores still around in the USA and most still sell vinyl as well as CDs. On Saturday, you can pick up some Rolling Stones and Animals recordings previously issued only in the UK in 1964 and ‘65.

I wonder how many people alive today have never even seen a 45 let alone listened to one. I’m betting most under 50 – 55.  And an extended play (EP) mono 45? Extraordinary.

But even if the recording arcana bores ya, the music won’t, especially the Stones early work.

 The Rolling Stones

Five by Five (Reissue by ABKCO Music and Records)

How genuine these kids played, working to stay true to the rhythm and blues of their idols.  This was before the Stones became “the world’s greatest rock n roll band,” before Brian Jones died after alienating just about everybody else in the group, long ahead of Bill Wyman getting bored with the whole thing and retiring.

Five songs by the five guys (plus one abused “member”) recorded at the famed Chess Records in Chicago during their first American tour.  Richards recently said that bands should record in the midst of tours when they’re “hot.”

There’s heat here from the jumping version of Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around” to the bouncing instrumental “2120 South Michigan Avenue” led by the fine organ work of Ian Stewart who was bounced out of the band for the wrong look and “six was too many.”

Until his death in 1985, Stewart is all over Stones’ recordings and concerts but was never accorded band member status.  Pete Best wasn’t the only casualty of the marketing of these early “British Invasion Bands” and Oldham was as big a jerk and control freak as Epstein.

But back to the music.

Jagger drags and drawls his way distinctively through “If You Need Me,” written by the truly wonderful and under appreciated Wilson Pickett. “Confessin the Blues” can now be played along black blues classics without a bit of hesitation.  It’s that good.

The album makes you ache for stuff this true to the form.  Maybe on their new world tour they could tuck Five by Five into the middle of the set somewhere and do all five.  Of course, they’re only four now because the bass player doesn’t get to be a real member. Ah, show biz.

 The Animals

 the animals is here

the animals are back (both reissues by ABKCO Music and Records)

In the same 1964-65 period that the Stones did “Five by Five,” the Animals issued two mono EPs in the UK and were sprung from some of the same roots, black blues and r&b with maybe a bit more attention to folk.

At least one major folk song so old its exact roots are unknown and argued about:

The magnificent “House of the Rising Sun” propelled the Animals to a status approaching the Beatles and the Stones.  Really, this one hit — transferring a fallen life from a poor young girl to a downtrodden guy — provided Eric Burdon with a format that would remain unequalled in his career. Alan Price on organ was the perfect complement to Burdon’s vocal and the song sent the band’s popularity through the roof.

The band wasn’t as good musically as the Stones; their instrumental breaks were very ordinary and closer to pop.  They seem at times a bit cheesy now except on “I’m Crying” where Price’s organ is again strong. But boy that Eric could sing.

On the animals are back he does a great cover of the immortal Sam Cooke’s “Bring it on Home to Me.”  No one could do it as well as Sam, but Burdon came close and brought his own deep soulful style to it.

The Animals achieved a second surge of popularity in the USA (and Viet Nam) with “We’ve Gotta Get Out of this Place,” which inexplicably became an anthem at the dances of privileged college kids, and very understandably among grunts hoping not to die in Nam. Again, Burdon’s deep resonant voice is just perfect to express the longing of British working class kids.

He’s also strong on “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” when it seemed he might be a great blues singer in the making.  But thematically, this fine song seems now to have been a preview of Burdon’s self absorption with being the coolest guy in the world.  Didn’t happen, but boy could he sing.  And he still can.

(BTW, never could find out why they fixed the plural subject-verb agreement in the second album. Of course, if you view “The Animals” as a singular noun, then it’s the second album that’s ungrammatical. Oh well.)

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.


Brian Arsenault’s Short Takes: CDs by Lunasa and Olivia Foschi

March 17, 2013

Of Music Beyond Ireland and Back to Italy

By Brian Arsenault

LÚNASA

 Lúnasa with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra (Lúnasa Records)

Up the Irish. Up the rebels. I always used to like my cousin’s husband bellowing those calls to rising first thing in the morning.

To get your dose of real Irish instrumental music with St. Patrick’s day upon us, give a listen to Lúnasa (whistles, fiddle, pipes, etc.) with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra (Ireland’s national orchestra).

It’s all there: jaunty jigs, melancholy melodies, mad passion, soft beauty. A wall of sound created by traditional Irish acoustic instruments enhanced by the restrained but not understated playing of the orchestra. Phil Spector might dig it, if he digs anything these days.

There are wonderful moments on several selections when Lúnasa starts on its own for several bars and then the orchestra comes up behind in support. That very moment when the orchestra begins is just dazzling. Perfection.

The surprise of this album (for me at least) is the band taking listeners to Celtic regions beyond Ireland’s shore–Brittany in western France, the former kingdoms of Galicia and Asturias, still autonomous regions in northwest and northern Spain.

The “Breton Set” is one of the delights of the album.  It is akin to Irish music but somehow different, calling across centuries to one another.

But my favorite for spunk and joy is “Morning Nightcap”. That’s not an oxymoron, darlin,’ it’s Irish.

You can get this album on i-Tunes and such in time for St. Patrick’s Day but not till mid-April in CD form. Go figure.

And if you’re anywhere near Powell, Wyoming (is anything near Powell, Wyoming?) today, on the big day itself, you can see Lúnasa at Powell High School Auditorium. Try and figure.

Olivia Foschi

Perennial Dreamer (Olivia Foschi)

Olivia Foschi tells the listener to kick off shoes and pour a glass of wine. She wants the album “to take you to a comfortable, cozy place.” But I didn’t put the CD in the Bose to be comfortable and cozy. I’d like to be thrilled, dazzled, enchanted, maybe grabbed and shaken.

And at times, Olivia, you come close.

On “Bridge” you and the piano mastery of Miki Hayama chase each other and make a perfect match.

On “Legend of the Purple Valley,” you set the mood perfectly during the opening by singing notes only. We are among the violets.

In other places, even though you’re a match for the bevy of current female jazz singers in clarity, pitch and tone, real angel stuff, I think I’m hearing the self imposed limitations of extensive music schooling. Music school is great, I’m not against it, but have you noticed how many times they tell you what you can’t/shouldn’t/mustn’t do?

I just don’t hear a complete singing style of your own yet.  As a songwriter, though, you’re hitting a nice stride.  “Disillusionment,” for example. And “Secrecy and Lies.”

Take more chances.  Have you spent enough time in the clubs?  You were born and raised in the States but had the fortitude to serve an orphanage in Katmandu, gain a European education and study music in Rome.   Surely you don’t just want us to only get all cozy.

Just keep going and don’t get too comfortable.

To read more reviews, posts and columns from Brian Arsenault click HERE.


Short Takes: Of My Favorites in Twenty-Twelve

December 29, 2012

By Brian Arsenault

I really don’t feel comfortable calling a column like this “The Best of 2012.”  It’s not that I’m not opinionated enough to do so, it’s that integrity would require me to have listened to a whole lot more during the year.  Wouldn’t one have to hear just about everything to do an honest “Best of 2012”?  Oh well, let others worry about that.

If  I absolutely had to select an album of the year it would be Dreams of the San Joaquin (Blix Street).  Maia Sharp combines with her parents, Randy Sharp and Sharon Bays, and Johnny Cash songwriter Jack Wesley Routh to give us a piece of America and thus a better sense of all of America.  It’s a Steinbeck novel, an early Capra movie, a train whistle in the night.

Here are my other favorites from the year drawing to a close:

 Jazz

- Halie Loren’s Heart First (Justin Time). How can this singer of grace and style not be near the top of everyone’s list? Great phrasing, emotions that resonate not nauseate, humor, wit. I truly don’t think there’s anyone better.

ave CD- Cheryl Bentyne’s Let’s Misbehave: The Cole Porter Songbook (Summit Records). This is a master class in jazz singing, in Cole Porter, in the American songbook. Cheryl Bentyne can make magic with Manhattan Transfer and on her own. Special magic here.

- Graham Dechter’s Takin’ It There (Capri). Jazz electric guitar virtuoso. You’ve heard that before but this guy will take you there. And beyond. You feel the music imbedded so deep in the DNA.  In this case, by nature and nurture.

- Jesse Cook’s The Blue Guitar Sessions (Entertainment One Music). I know, two guitarists. But this is something completely different.  Softly stated, yes, but more accurately, lyrically stated. A world of its own inviting you to enter.

- Nik Bartsch’s Ronin (ECM).  In medieval Japan, Ronin were Samurai without masters.  That works here.  Smoothly flowing jazz funks to a frenetic pace. To quiet piano bars. There are spaces, gaps, silences. And wondrous sound.

 Non-Jazz

- Rickie Lee JonesThe Devil You Know (Concord Records).  A long time. A lot of pain. A lot of courage. A lot of living. Not covers but reinterpretations that in several cases are more articulate, more profound, more evocative than the originals.

- All Purpose Blues Band’s Cornbread and Cadillacs (Catbone Music) because the traditions of Otis Redding, Sam Cook, all the Delta bluesmen, funk, soul, Neville Brothers, and Bourbon Street must continue to be there to renew and enrich our souls.

s CD- Rolling Stones’ reissue of Some Girls Live in Texas 1978. (Eagle Rock Entertainment) Mick and the boys at the height of their powers. If you’re not sure you are comfortable with today’s geezers in concert, you will be reassured by this remarkable live album.

- Various artists, hell, many artists, on Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan.. This album of Bob Dylan songs was done for Amnesty International, and such collaborative efforts seldom get a lot of recognition. Well, it’s not actually a full blown work of art, critics sniff dismissively. But it you miss this, you miss some magnificent interpretations of Dylan’s work. Disc 2 alone is worth the price of admission.

- Mary Black’s Song from the Steeples (Blix Street) both in its own right and as a representative of a great year of music from Irish female singers.  Not sure what’s going on but it seems like a virtual renaissance of Irish singers. Of course, they’re always there, aren’t they. We just aren’t always listening.

- Martha’s Trouble’s A Little Heart Like You (Aisling).  There are new babies in our family, both arrived and on the way.  If there are newcomers in yours, this album of artfully done lullabies will please both babe and parents. Not sing-songy sweet to send you screaming from the room on a third play, but genuinely good music.

 DVD

- Ike & Tina On the Road 1971-72 (MVD Visual). Low quality video/audio in places can’t diminish the powerful birth of real superstar Tina Turner and innovator Ike Turner. A remarkable portrait of musical performing artists.

To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.


Short Takes: New CDs featuring Randy Sharp, Sharon Rays, Jack Routh and Maia Sharp

September 14, 2012

By Brian Arsenault

Randy Sharp, Sharon Rays, Jack Routh and Maia Sharp

 Dreams of the San Joaquin (Blix St. Records)

It seems to me that Dreams of the San Joaquin should be the birth of a band.  They are that good together, whatever their sterling individual credits and talents. And San Joaquin wouldn’t be a bad band name.

Throughout there are touches of Johnny Cash — Jack Routh penned several Cash songs; Linda Ronstadt, who has recorded the title song; even early Eagles.  As Ronstadt once said, there is (or was) a form of California Country music.  And Willie could record any number of songs here.  But the sound of this album is also uniquely attuned to the band’s members: the married Randy Sharp and Sharon Rays, daughter Maia  Sharp and family friend Routh.  They variously sing lead vocals and back up and harmonies and a sound emerges that has the sensitivity of C, S & N and the strength of  Willie and his Outlaws in their glory days.

Jack Routh, Maia Sharp, Sharon Rays, Randy Sharp

All have ties to the San Joaquin Valley which has seen Oakies and Arkies come, multi-generations of Mexican farm workers, and more surprising ethnicities including a substantial Portuguese population, the first Sikh place of worship in America and the only town in California, now gone, founded by African Americans.

Several of the eleven songs such as “Burn Day” and “Between the Ice and the Fire” (wish Cash was alive to cover this one) are about love lost or never realized. There are also echoes of Cash in “Beyond the Great Divide” which isn’t only about geography.

The separation brought on by poverty and the search for work and the too often hopeless dream of togetherness is brought to its highest artistic revelation in the title song:

I’m sending you some money — I wish it could be more

            But it’s harder than I thought to find the work I came here for.

The contradiction of a place so beautiful but lousy poor is aching and the longing to be together “in the life we dream about” even more so.  Randy Sharp’s understated yet touching vocals seem to have emerged from stoic men in the Dust Bowl era. And guest Louie Ortega beautifully singing the lyrics in Spanish as counterpoint to Sharp’s vocal on the final chorus makes more universal the experience of days, even years of want.

There’s a touch of Roy Orbison musically and lyrically on “New Way Out” wherein an exit from a relationship without pain is sought in vain.  And the cowboy harmonies remind you that there once was a form known as Country Western, some would argue it was the first form of Country music.

Maia Sharp has a distinctive quality to her voice that is featured on “A Home”.  More about that quality in the review of her own album below, but you’ll need to hear it for yourself if you never have before.

Maia’s Mom, Sharon Bays, lets us know that a bit of drink can make us merry, at least for a while, in “For Old Time’s Sake”. Old times and old timey music are represented on “Or So the Heart Remembers”:

Love just fell apart

            Or so the heart remembers.

In the end, though, however fine so many of the songs on this album, there’s a cumulative effect that satisfies at an even deeper level.  Though most have that as a goal, there are few albums that emerge as an entity, as a fully realized work of art. This one does.

Keep the band together.

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Maia Sharp

Change the Ending (Blix St. Records)

I agree with the title but let me start at the beginning:

Maia Sharp just has this really pleasing voice; smooth, clear, alluring, deep and throaty. The kind of voice you wish an early girlfriend had when you mostly talked on the phone.

So when she starts off with two keep-time-bouncing songs, “Me After You” and “The Middle,” I settled in like putting on the first comfortable old sweater of autumn and said ‘I’m really gonna like this.’ And I did. For the most part.

Maia Sharp

Musically and vocally Maia’s somewhere between Bonnie Raitt and Carole King.  But this is a better more rounded voice than either.  She writes about broken love, lost love, yearned for love, even rising above love.  Nothing wrong with that and she makes it all so believable.

Maybe therein lies the trouble. When the songs sound like they are all about your own (dreaded word coming) relationships, the (dreaded word) relationships have to be pretty damn interesting.  It’s hard to get outside yourself and by the end I was just a teeny bit bored, even though the lyrics are always intelligent, thoughtful even.

Only on one song does she seem to reach beyond herself and speak to the larger human condition.  “Standing Out In A Crowd” touches, with Janis Ian pathos, the problem of self consciousness and fear of not fitting in. Too bad in a way, since Maia wrote it, that the song’s already been someone else’s hit.

But I haven’t said enough good about this album.  It’s real good. Maia’s singing throughout is terrific and the band supports her in fine fashion. Guitarist Linda Taylor is a stand out.  And for the first half dozen songs this is a great love song album.

It’s just that it saves the dreary, rather self pity songs and an odd little instrumental remix of one of the album’s strongest songs, “Buy My Love,” for the second half.  And made me want to… change the ending.

To read more reviews, posts and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE


CD Review: Martha’s Trouble “A Little Heart Like You”

May 20, 2012

Martha’s Trouble

A Little Heart Like You (Aisling Records)

By Brian Arsenault

Martha’s Trouble, for the uninitiated ‘til now like me, is a husband and wife folk duo — Rob and Jen Slocumb — who had great critical success with their first album a few years ago, did the touring thing, released more albums with some success and then devoted some years primarily to their two young children.  A happy outcome of that kid commitment, besides presumably happier children, is their album of lullabies, to wit:  A Little Heart Like You.

The Slocumbs wrote several of the tunes here and interpreted some traditional lullabies as well.  The result is pleasing without being saccharine and, hey, we’re talking lullabies here.

Martha’s Trouble (Rob and Jen Slocumb)

If you had a musical cousin somewhere in the hill country, a sweet girl, a thoughtful girl, a sometimes sad girl, her singing would probably sound a lot like Jen’s. Rob’s deeply rooted acoustic guitar playing supports and enhances her voice throughout.

Fiddler Natalyn Weinstein is but one of several skilled players who lend a hand on gentle stringed instruments played gently.  The playing throughout seems as soft as a gentle hand, especially to one who spends most of his time hearing electric and brass.

The “standards” you know: “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,”  “You Are My Sunshine” (perhaps the best ever), “Hush Little Baby (Mockingbird)” and so on but you may never have heard them done as real music for children, as songs of some integrity unembellished by fake kid voices and tinkly instrumentation. Trust me, a kid would prefer to fall asleep to these versions.

“Goodnight Sweet Child” is an example of the same kind of quality in composition and execution in the songs the Slocumbs wrote themselves. “Little Heart” is a poetic notion with which to characterize a young child or babe. “Precious Love” typifies the whole album, a love song to their babies.

That’s what raises the album above the pretty or simply cute.  It is an expression of parental love and a good one.

A secular Yankee like me inhaled a bit deeply at the inclusion of “Jesus Loves Me” and “Bedtime Prayer.” Is that bravery on the part of the Slocumbs in an age when so many run away from any representation of faith?  Or is it simply an unselfconscious shot at hope for higher love for their kids in an all too often cold cruel world?

At least in their version of “Bedtime Prayer” they left out the verse I knew and recited nightly for many childhood years with the terrifying line about dying “before I wake.” Who, as a child, completely comprehended that phrase about God taking your soul to keep? Who does now?

I can’t close without noting that I like very much that the album credits include a thank you to businesses in Auburn/Opelika, Alabama that provided “support” in the making of the CD. The list includes an insurance agency, a chicken finger restaurant, a dentist and a salon. Local sponsors. Cool, huh?

If you have a baby or a young child in your family and maybe you can’t sing a note or plunk a chord or even if you can, get this for an early musical experience.  Fortunately, there’s a baby due in our family in August and I now already have a great gift for him. And his parents.

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To read more reviews and posts by Brian Arsenault, click HERE.


CD Review: Punch Brothers

February 18, 2012

Punch Brothers

Who’s Feeling Young Now (Nonesuch)

By Brian Arsenault

Punch Brothers’ new album, Who’s Feeling Young Now?, starts so strong. Poetic intelligent lyrics, deeply felt but restrained feelings in the vocals, especially strong fiddle playing by Gabe Witcher. In a time of computer beeps and annoying bongs and chirps of everything from coffee makers to cars to hip hop, there is a purity of rounded sound here that is as comfortable as old sneakers and jeans.

Punch Brothers

“Movement and Location” opens the album with all the fine qualities mentioned above.  “This Girl” follows with an electric pace carried by stringed instruments. The song’s a prayer for love and favor, or the favor of love.  Who does that? Asks for it, yes, but prays for it? Today? Not many in popular music outside of the Christian genre.

The song says “Gods ought to know how little to expect of people,” but the gods and me expected a lot of this band.

And I kept expecting a great deal right through “No Concern of Yours,” where the poetry is up to a Paul Simon standard:

A word can break as easy as it’s spoken, snarled or sworn.”

And Jimmy Paige could play guitar on an electric cover of the title song, “Who’s Feeling Young Now?”

But then I began to consider that maybe these guys just lost their amps.  But no, they are a self proclaimed bluegrass band.  And just as I have felt at every bluegrass concert I have ever attended, no matter the quality of the musicians, it’s just . . . well . . . like the amazing Gary Oldman character in The Professional says of his idol Beethoven — that after those amazing beginnings, he does tend to get just a little bit boring. Or words to that effect.

It could be it’s nothing more than my need for percussion, somewhere, somehow.  I admit it’s a prejudice but it’s a good one, don’t you think?  Even a snare drum. Just a little.  But this is bluegrass, so maybe I don’t have a legitimate complaint.

The songs  seem to sound a lot alike musically and lyrically. And I can only take so much “can’t find love” stuff. Or is it that they can’t sustain love? Or a relationship.  Is this a Woody Allen movie?

By the time we get to “Flippen (The Flip)” I appreciate the break.  A pure Ozarks instrumental that does a funky little acid rock thing in the middle — not many can do that with acoustic instruments — and then flashes back to pure West Virginny to finish up.

It’s not that most of the songs don’t stay good.  “Hundred Dollars” beefs up the emotional impact of the album with the anger and force of emotion missing elsewhere. “Soon or Never” has a wonderful melancholy, amplified by the fiddle solo at the end.

It’s just that by now I feel like I have heard it all once, twice, three times. Enough.  Surely some other dynamic of life could come into play. I’m certainly not feeling young and I haven’t smiled once.

Photo courtesy of Punch Brothers.


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